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by
Belladonna Rogers

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August 21, 2011 - 11:15 am

There are many who consider themselves night owls.  They believe they peak at 3 A.M.  But a new study, discussed by John Tierney in today’s New York Times Magazine  (I know: the paper is the pits, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day) tells of a fascinating Stanford-Ben Gurion University study on the effects of “decision fatigue.”  Despite your feelings about the Times,  this one piece is worth reading.  Excerpt:

…There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior, which was reported earlier this year by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down. This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.

…The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.

“The best decision makers,” social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister says at the conclusion of Tierney’s article, “are the ones who know when not to trust themselves.” Is “decision fatigue” something that affects you? What do you do to overcome it, or at least help to reduce the odds of making bad decisions?

Belladonna Rogers is a close observer of international and domestic affairs.
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